Bushcraft skills are essential for survival, especially if you plan on bugging out to a remote location. The ability to use resources from the environment can save your behind when SHTF--- and even help you thrive after--- so it’s important to take the time to learn them.
In this article, we discuss all there is to know about bushcraft, from basic tools to vital skills like foraging, building shelter, making fire, acquiring food, and more. You’ll also find useful tutorials all throughout the article, so if you think you need to sharpen those bushcraft skills, read on:
Bushcraft Basics: What Is Bushcraft And How Will It Help You Survive TEOTWAWKI?
Here’s a simple truth : Mother Nature provides all of our needs. All we have to do is know where to find these resources and know how to use them.
Bushcraft, interchangeably known as “wilderness skills”, focuses on using resources available in the natural environment for survival. This skill set includes firemaking, foraging food, tracking, trapping, hunting game, and shelter-building using basic tools.
Learning and mastering bushcraft skills will inevitably help you when SHTF.
Remember, in a large scale disaster, most modern conveniences will go to the dogs. Without the grid, food supply, clean water, functional sewage, and the internet, society as we know it will plunge into chaos. People will have no choice but to learn the old ways or perish. As a prepper, you'll have to learn how to make fire, forage for food, purify water, build a shelter and make tools with what little you can find.
By arming yourself with a sharp set of bushcraft skills, you'll learn how to survive in a short-term emergency and even be self-sufficient in long-term scenarios. Once you've mastered these skills, you can go on to teach others as well.
Essential Bushcraft Tools
To be able to do these tasks, you must have the right bushcraft tools. Here are some of the basic bushcraft gear that you should have in your arsenal:
A sharp and sturdy knife is indispensable in bushcraft. Without it, you'd be unable to make fire, set up your shelter, hunt and prepare your food, carve other tools, plus a slew of other small tasks.
That being said, a durable full tang knife with a fixed blade is often used for bushcraft. Full tang means that the knife's steel extends all the way through the handle, making it less prone to breakage and damage.
While folding knives are portable and great for EDC, they're not exactly the safest or most reliable for tasks like woodworking, so stick with a fixed blade knife instead. A knife with a drop point and a flat or Scandi grind is great for most bushcraft tasks, too.
How long should bushcraft knives be?
Bushcraft knives are usually around 3 and a half to 6 inches long. This length allows them to do both heavy-duty and small, detailed tasks. Anything smaller will be hard to handle; anything bigger, on the other hand, will be a machete.
Should you go for a high carbon steel or stainless steel bushcraft knife?
As far as material goes, it's a contest between high carbon and stainless steels. Your choice of steel will depend on your needs.
Carbon steel blades are durable, easier to sharpen, and tend to throw better sparks when used with a ferro rod. They’re more prone to rust and oxidation, however, so they need higher maintenance compared to their stainless steel cousins.
Stainless steel blades on the other hand, take longer to sharpen but keep their edge longer. They require little maintenance and are virtually rust-proof, making them great for humid environments.
Don’t forget about the knife handle
Make sure that the knife handle feels good in the hand, too. Bushcraft knife handles are usually made from hardwood, but this absorbs moisture overtime, so you can go for synthetic materials like Micarta or G10 fiberglass.
Since you're using your knife for bushcraft, it would only make sense to include a sharpening stone in your kit. There are many types of knife sharpeners out there, the most common of which include Japanese waterstones, whetstones or oil stones.
Most sharpening stones have two sides: a coarse side for the initial sharpening and shaping, and a finer surface for the finishing touches. Leather belts also make for good stropping materials to keep your knives sharp even when on the field. If you need pro tips on how to sharpen your knife while in your bushcraft camp or on the field, check out the video above.
An axe is capable of doing tasks that your knife can't or shouldn't do like felling and limbing trees, cutting and splitting large pieces of firewood, and building permanent shelter.
Like your knife, axe blades can be made from high carbon steel or stainless steel. A bushcraft axe doesn't have to be the biggest or longest, either. Large axes with heavy bits may penetrate wood better, but they also require more energy for you to swing. Most bushcrafters prefer using smaller, lighter axes that can be conveniently stowed away in a backpack. These are easier to carry around and can be used with only one hand.
Another important factor to consider when choosing a bushcraft axe is its sharpness. An ideal axe should be able to keep its edge well even after use and abuse.
Lastly, an ergonomic hardwood handle is also key for a good grip and chopping power.
Now, not all bushcrafters carry axes. Some enthusiasts prefer using a folding saw for woodworking since its significantly lighter and easier to carry around. They also make for straighter cuts in the wood, which is great for building shelter, especially if you want a sturdy one to outlast the elements.
Saws are also more efficient since they take less energy to cut through wood and produce more output in the same amount of time. Less effort means you have more time and energy left to do other tasks necessary for survival.
A compass is a pretty straight-forward device. You don't need a lot of bells and whistles in a compass; you just need to have a reliable one that orients accurately. Moreover, you have to know how to use one to find your way in the wilderness.
Firestrikers or ferro rods are capable of creating fire through friction. Unlike lighters or matches, fire strikers work even when wet, are effective at any elevation, and do not need fuel. They’re also easier to use compared to their flint-and-steel counterparts. To know more about ferro rod fire starters, check out this comprehensive review.
Bushcraft Checklist: Wilderness Skills You Need To Possess
Now that you know the basic bushcraft tools, it's time to dive into the skills you need to possess. Remember, it won't matter if you had the sharpest knife or the biggest saw or the most accurate compass out there if you didn’t have a clue on how to use them properly.
Below you'll find an extensive checklist of all the bushcraft skills that you should have under your belt:
Foraging For Food And Medicine
Foraging, by definition, is the act of finding and gathering flora and fauna mainly for food. However, you can also use your foraging skills to find medicinal plants and herbs, natural cordage, firestarters, or materials for shelter.
Foraging for food
We humans started out as hunter-gatherers. Before the dawn of agriculture and industrialization, the forests were our grocery stores. Some examples of food that you can forage in the wild include fruits, berries, nuts, mushrooms, tubers, and shoots. Flowers, seeds, and weeds like dandelions and nettles are less obvious choices, but you can also forage and eat them when the going gets tough.
Know Your Local Geography
To be a good forager, you first have to know the lay of the land. What type of plants, fruit-bearing trees, and vegetation grow in your area? Where can you find them?
Take cattails, for example. This wild edible is common in most parts of North America and can be found near ponds and marshes. Cacti, on the other hand, are common in the West and Southwest regions of the States and can be found in dry, arid areas like deserts.
Plant identification is crucial in foraging. Make a mistake and you’d end up with a bad allergy, a busted stomach, or you might not live to tell the tale at all. Remember, Mother Nature may provide for all our needs, but she also has a lot of plants that can kill you on the spot too, so it’s important for you to be able to distinguish friend from foe.
What do these edible plants look like? What are their distinct qualities, and how can you tell them apart from dangerous ones?
Some wild edibles, like root crops and bulbs, grow underground, so you also have to know how their leaves and shoots look above the surface.
If you're a complete beginner, keeping a pocket guide with colored illustrations can help you a lot. Make sure that this pocket guide covers the area or climate that you're in, and carry this with you when out camping or backpacking. Try to identify the plants that you can find along the way and take down notes with your personal observations.
You can also take classes with a forager to help you learn faster. These experts have years of insight and may have tips and learnings from their experiences that you can’t find in guidebooks.
Growing Seasons For Foraging
Aside from knowing the plants' geographic location and appearance, you also have to be familiar with their growing seasons. When do these wild edibles grow most abundantly? Are they available only in certain seasons, or can you find them all year round?
For example, many edible mushrooms species grow abundantly during the hot and humid summers. They grow at the edge of forests at the start of the season, especially after a nice, warm rain shower. By July to August, you can find tons of mushrooms in oak and beech groves, or in areas where evergreen trees grow. They can also be abundant in south-facing hill slopes since these areas receive more warmth.
Foraging For Medicine
Plants aren't only good for food; most of them also have medicinal properties, too. To take advantage of these properties, you must know which parts of the plant to use and how to use them.
Here are some examples of common medicinal plants and how to put them to good use:
- You can steep willow bark into a tea and use it to treat aches, pains, fever, and swelling.
- Fennel tea also helps soothe an upset stomach and fight bloating and nausea.
- Yarrow leaves and flowers can be used to aid in blood clotting to slow down bleeding. You can also use it to treat fevers and coughs.
- Dandelions, which are usually passed off as weeds, can be turned into a salve for muscle aches and joint pains.
- Plantains have excellent anti-inflammatory properties and make good poultices.
- Comfrey poultices or compresses are great for fixing wounds and fractures.
Dos and Don'ts When Foraging
Building Bushcraft Shelters
Exposure to extremely harsh conditions can kill you in a matter of minutes, so it's important to find or make shelter as soon as possible.
The good thing is there are a ton of ways to make bushcraft shelters from just about anything you can find in the environment.
Making cordage using natural materials
Cordage is one of the most vital components of bushcraft shelters. If you find yourself without rope or 550 paracord, you can use natural cordage to assemble frames or lash poles together for your shelter. You can also use cordage for other purposes, like climbing, creating snares, traps, fishing lines, or bow drills for fire.
Cedar bark is one of the best sources of natural cordage. You can find these trees all over the country, especially if you're in the Pacific Northwest region. To make cordage from cedar bark, you'd want to harvest the inner bark or bast of the tree. That's the stringy, fibrous layer right under the protective outer bark. As you can see in the video above, you'll want to peel the outer bark off in one go and harvest the bast to create cordage from the fibers. You'll want the bark to dry and age before turning it into ropes though, since moist bark can shrink over time.
Plants like nettles also make for good cordage. When harvesting these plants, make sure to wear gloves; they're not called stinging nettle for nothing. Remove the leaves, flatten the stem, and carefully peel the nettle skin off. Once you've done that, twist the fibers until you form cordage. Unlike cedar bark, you don't have to wait for the nettle stalks to dry out before you can use them. They're also strong and capable of withstanding tension.
Other natural materials that you can use as cordage include some species of tall grass, willow saplings, roots, and jungle vines.
Cordage would be of little use unless you know how to tie a good knot or two. There are various knots for different purposes. Here are some of our go-to knots:
- square knot - multipurpose knot great for tying or connecting two lengths of rope
- figure eight - retains the strength of the cordage well. This knot does not unravel with pressure, so it’s good for climbing, creating footholds or pulling someone to safety.
- bowline knot - also retains the strength of the rope or cordage. You can tie this with one hand so it's excellent for rescues or for tying down objects
- clove hitch - this is a quick release knot for securing cordage to trees
- tautline hitch - used to adjust the tension on tarp shelters
For an in-depth look at more knots that you can use for bushcraft and survival and tutorials on how to tie them, check out this post.
Basic Types Of Bushcraft Shelters
Bushcraft shelters come in all shapes and sizes. You can find shelter in nature, as in uninhabited caves, under rock overhangs, or near large fallen trees. You can also construct your own from tree limbs, branches, and foliage. Some types of bushcraft shelters that you can make include:
- Lean-to shelter - a common free-standing shelter with three walls and an open side. This is one of the easiest bushcraft shelters that you can construct.
- A-Frame shelter - has a triangular, A-shaped frame with a main ridgepole that runs along the top. Also known as the double lean-to shelter.
- Dug out shelter - a shelter made by digging a trench on the ground
- Fallen tree shelter - a shelter made from the flat base of a tree root
You can read more about how to build these bushcraft shelters and more in this article.
General Guidelines In Shelter Building
Whatever type of shelter you're looking for or are making, here are some general guidelines to consider:
- Pick a good location. Your shelter should be able to offer adequate protection from the environment and shield you from harsh rain and wind. It should also be located a safe distance away from your water source (about 200 meters)
- Choose a relatively flat location to avoid flooding.
- Avoid setting up camp under large trees. While they offer shelter from rain, they also have thick branches that can fall on you. They’re prone to lightning strikes and their leaves will drip long after the rain has stopped, so their cons outweigh the pros.
- Your shelter should be able to reflect and conserve heat. Stone faces or large boulders make for good heat reflectors. You can also construct a wall from medium-sized sticks and line it with foliage and moss, which are natural insulators.
We've previously talked about survival and bushcraft shelters in length in our other articles. Here's a directory of useful info to help you out:
Waterproofing your shelter
Since your shelter is mostly made of wood, you'd want to take extra measures to make sure that it stays dry.
As we mentioned earlier, choosing the right place is essential in keeping dry. Pick a relatively flat and well-draining location, away from trees with a lot of leaves to prevent dripping. Stay away from ravines or canyons---they may be bone-dry now, but they're notorious for flash-flooding after mild showers.
When building your shelter, make sure not to make it too big to conserve heat.
You also have to create roofs at an angle so rainwater flows at the sides. Cover these steep, angled roof frames with broad leaves, starting from the lowest part and working your way towards the top. This way, your roof can work like shingles and shed rainwater without a hitch. Don't forget to dig a rainwater runoff around your camp so you won't wake up in a puddle.
Another way to waterproof your shelter is by simply bringing a tarp. Tarps are cheap, hard-wearing, and multifunctional. You can use different configurations to turn it into a shelter, use it as a ground sheet or to put on as an additional layer to your bushcraft shelter's roof.
When using tarps to waterproof your shelter, make sure that it’s stretched out tautly and is securely pegged to the ground or to a tree so that it doesn’t collect rainwater. If you can't afford a tarp, use a thick drop cloth or repurpose an old shower curtain.
Making DIY cement from wood ash
Basic carpentry and woodworking skills are undoubtedly essential when making bushcraft shelters, but if you want to take it up a notch, you can create makeshift cement from wood ash.
As the name suggests, wood ash cement is made by burning biomass like dried bark and leaves. These materials are more common than the usual ingredients used to create makeshift cement like limestone or shells, but contain the same minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. When done properly, you can use wood ash cement as mortar to reinforce your shelter or you can turn it into little blocks for various purposes.
The process is pretty labor-intensive and time consuming, though, so it's best to make this only if you've got the time and resources. As seen on the tutorial above, you'll need to have a kiln or oven, a lot of ash from biomass (hardwood ash works best) plus some clay or terracotta to use as aggregate.
Still, it's a good-to-know skill that might come in handy when you're building a semi-permanent bushcraft dwelling or bug-out camp.
Fire provides you with heat, light, and protection. This indispensable resource also allows you to cook food, purify water, and fend off predators.
To create fire, you only need three ingredients: oxygen, heat, and fuel. These factors are collectively known as the combustion triangle. If one is missing, you can't ignite a flame.
Oxygen,of course, comes from the air around us. You can best harness oxygen by allowing proper ventilation and by creating efficient firelays.
You can produce heat primarily through friction. Once you create a spark or an ember and it catches on to your fuel, chances are you'll be able to create a fire
Fuel comes in the form of combustible materials and is generally classified as tinder, kindling, and firewood. Tinder is the smallest and finest of the bunch, usually made from thin wood shavings, feathersticks, and other fibrous material. Their purpose is to catch sparks or embers to burn kindling like sticks and twigs. Once your tinder and kindling are burning, you can feed it larger chunks of fuelwood to keep it burning and to produce hot coals.
Natural Firestarters: Tinder, Kindling, And Firewood
Shavings or curls from fatwood or from resinous trees like cedar, birch, and pine make for excellent tinder, and you can find them almost anywhere in North America.
Tree bark is also great as a tinder and firestarter. Red cedar bark is especially fibrous, and can be lit even when damp. You can fluff up red cedar bark to create a "bird's nest” to catch sparks or live embers.
Birch bark is rich in resins which help them ignite faster. It's also resistant to moisture and easy to gather. With a knife, simply skin dead fallen birch trees and their barks will come off in sheets. You can tear birch bark into strips and bundle it up to start a fire.
Fatwood is another term for pine heartwood drenched in resin. Though not as common nor as easy to harvest as the other firestarters mentioned earlier, fatwood shavings light almost instantly even in very damp conditions. You can also cut them up in chunks and use them kindling or firewood.
Other natural fire starters include:
- tinder fungus - a black and spongy species of mushroom used to hold coals or reignite fires
- cattails - dry and fluffy, cattails can be found near water or in marshlands. They don't burn for very long, so they're usually considered as flash tinder
- pinecones - like fatwood, pinecones are resinous and can be used as fuel.
Batoning and splitting firewood
Batoning firewood has been a very polarizing topic among preppers. Should you do it and risk ruining your knife? Or should you never do it at all?
Well, whether you're in favor of it or not, you have to learn how to baton and split wood when you're left with no other choice.
Batoning is the process of splitting wood with a knife and another blunt piece of wood called a baton. The idea is to lodge the knife onto a block of wood and strike it with the baton, thus splitting the wood into smaller chunks perfect for a campfire. Batoning can sometimes be easier than using an axe or saw, especially when you want to split small pieces of wood quickly.
The downside is that batoning needs a lot of practice, and it can damage your knife in the process. If you're not careful, you might even end up hurting yourself.
The trick to successful batoning is to make sure that your knife is sharp and its edge is placed perfectly straight onto the block. Then, strike it with the baton nice and hard so it splits right down the center.
Primitive Ways To Make Fire
Since the primitive man didn't have matches or lighters, they primarily made fire through friction, and they produced friction through drills.
There are many types of drills out there, but they more or less have the same basic components: a spindle or a long stick that one uses to create friction and a fireboard, which is a flat piece of wood that collects the embers made by the spindle.
Here are some examples of primitive fire drills:
- Hand Drill - The hand drill can be operated by one person and is perhaps the most easily recognizable fire drills out there. The idea is pretty simple: you roll the spindle really fast between your palms, running your hands down its length very quickly until it produces embers. The embers are collected in a small nick or depression on the fireboard and are then transferred to a pile of tinder. Tinder ignites and boom, you have a fire.
- Bow Drill - The concept is pretty similar to a hand drill, but this time, you use a flexible stick and a piece of cordage to create a bow. The bow is used to turn the spindle and creates the friction for you.
- Two-man Friction Drill - This one is essentially a bow drill but instead of going at it alone, one person holds the drill upright while the other operates the bow to create friction.
- Pump Fire Drill - This type of fire drill is a bit more complicated than the rest. The bow is powered by a manually operated pump mechanism that creates friction.
Aside from drills, another primitive way to create a friction fire is through a fire plough. Instead of using a spindle and a small depression on a fireboard, you make a groove along the length of the fireboard and slide another piece of wood along it, creating friction horizontally. The stick should be around an inch thick and made from softwood for best results.
Another method is to use flint and steel. This is how they used to kick it back in ye olde days. On one hand, you've got a striker made from carbon steel, and on another, a hard stone made from flint or chert. Striking these materials against each other creates sparks, which catch on dry tinder. You can perfect this method through practice, but a more convenient way to create fire through the same principle is by using ferrocerium rod fire starters instead.
Which Firelay Should You Use?
It's not enough to light a fire; you should also be able to keep it going. An excellent choice of firelay will help your fire stay lit throughout the night with little to no maintenance, so it's important to pick the right one.
Here are some examples of firelays that you can construct:
- Tipi firelay - as the name suggests, the tipi firelay sports a triangular shape like a tipi shelter and can be made from sticks and twigs. To build it, all you have to do is start from small kindling and work your way to the bigger ones, leaving an opening on the upwind side to ignite the tinder.
- Log cabin or upside down fire - a self-feeding firelay that burns from top to bottom. Up top, you have your tinder and kindling. The pieces of fuel get thicker as you go down the firelay, allowing the fire to constantly produce a big hot flame with minimal tending.
- Star fire - this one is very simple. Start by building a small pile of tinder and kindling, and around it, place large pieces of firewood. The idea is to gradually push the larger pieces of fuel into the fire to keep it going.
Wanna know the nitty-gritty details on how to make these firelays and more? Check out these tutorials. If you want to learn more about firemaking, here’s the full roster of useful guides and resources:
Finding and Purifying Water In The Wild
Hydration is key for survival, so you must know how to find and purify water in the wild.
Like the other bushcraft skills mentioned in this article, you can find many sources of water out there by first knowing the lay of the land, and by reading natural indications of water, like the following:
- Gurgling or rushing sounds - these indicate the presence of running water. Since water flows downward, you can most likely find it in low-lying areas, canyons, and valleys.
- Plants and vegetation - certain plant species, like lilies and cattails only grow near water, so look out for these. Note the quality of the soil, too---muddy or marshy ones obviously indicate water. Large, thick vines and trees can also be sources of water themselves. Before you drink up, however, make sure that the plant is not poisonous and it doesn't ooze bitter or cloudy sap.
- Presence of animals and insects - grazing animals and herbivores are more likely to lead you to their watering holes. Watch out for birds, too. Birds will fly low and in a formation when in search of water, and will likely hop from tree to tree after having a drink.
When you can't find a lake, river, or stream to get water from, you'll have to get creative by collecting rainwater, creating a solar still, or looking for alternative sources of hydration. Here's a guide on how to go about those methods.
Bushcraft Water Purification
A bandana or shemagh is excellent for taking out debris and dirt from your drinking water, but if you don’t have one on hand, you’ll have to make your own filter. The video above describes the process of how to make one with a bottle and some natural filters like rocks, leaves, and soil.
The idea is to stack the filters up in layers. The large and loose ones like rocks and pebbles go at the top to filter big pieces of debris. The filters gradually become finer to take out minute contaminants until you get clear water.
Once you’ve got a decent amount of water, purify it through boiling. Boiling kills microorganisms and viruses that might cause disease.
Trapping And Hunting Game For Food
Berries, roots, and edible plants will keep you alive well enough, but if you want to fill your belly with something more substantial, you will have to learn how to track, trap and hunt game for food.
The biggest advantage of trapping is that it allows you to save time and energy. Unlike hunting, where you have to actively chase after a single quarry, trapping lets you catch a lot of prey without having to run after it. You can set up traps in different places to increase your chances of catching a meal. This multitasking feat frees up a large chunk of your time, letting you do other stuff like make fire or reinforce your shelter.
When setting up traps and snares, it's important to develop a keen skill for tracking animals. Know what kind of animal you're trapping by watching out for things like:
- fresh or worn tracks
- disturbed vegetation
- the animal's usual diet within the vicinity
Once you've determined your prey, it's time to move. Here are some tutorials that show how to create some of the most common traps out there:
The deadfall trap is one of the earliest and most effective traps known to man. This is used to catch small to medium-sized prey like rodents, squirrels.
Spring Snare Trap
Simple yet effective, the spring snare trap uses a length of wire or string to create a noose that tightens around the animal's leg or neck.
Woven Fish Trap
This trap takes a long time and a lot of skill to make, but the payoff will be worth it. This trap lets you catch medium-sized fish and eels.
This is a smaller version of the fish trap for prawns and smaller species of fish.
Things To Remember When Making Traps
Traps take a lot of skill and practice. Here are some useful tips to remember when constructing traps and snares:
- Prepare the parts of your trap away from the area to avoid disturbing the vegetation and alerting the animals to your presence. All you have to do when you come to the site is to assemble your trap.
- Stay downwind.
- Always wear gloves when handling your traps. Animals have a keen sense of smell and can detect your scent. Rub plants, dirt or the innards of your previous catch onto your trap to mask your own scent and confuse the animal.
- Blending in is key. Make sure that your trap blends well with the environment by camouflaging it with leaves, mud, and vegetation.
- Avoid using young twigs and cordage when making your traps. These release a scent that alerts animals of potential predators. If you can't find any old materials, age your trap by exposing it to the sun.
- Choose your bait wisely. Don't use a bait that the animal can just easily find elsewhere. Instead, use something that will potentially catch their attention.
For an in-depth look at other primitive ways to catch, cook, and eat food in the wild, check these out:
Other Bushcraft Skills You Have To Know
Shelter, fire, water, and food are the four foundations of outdoor survival. Once you develop your skills in these areas, you’ll be able to survive out in the wild without modern resources.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to stop there. These intermediate bushcraft skills will help you take your survival know-how to the next level:
Making Bushcraft Tools
What separates humans from other primates? Our ability to create and use tools to help make our lives easier. This video shows 7 useful tools and contraptions that you can use in and around your bushcraft camp.
You need to know how to get your bearings when out in the woods. When you don’t have a compass and a map, these natural navigation techniques will prevent you from getting lost in the wilderness.
At some point, you might have to leave your camp and venture out into bodies of water to get food or to explore. You can create a canoe from reeds as shown in the video above or construct a raft from driftwood.
You know what they say: the more you know, the less you need. Having a sharp set of bushcraft skills will not only help you survive in the wild; they will also help you live off the land and thrive without modern creature comforts long after SHTF.
How good are your bushcraft skills? Do you think you can survive an extreme bug out situation in the woods? Let us know in the comments below!